Two friends in an English boarding school, going by the names Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, discover a plot to murder British businessmen using a hallucinatory drug. The trail leads to the doorsteps of an Egyptian cult.
While having nothing to do with Arthur Conan-Doyle’s great fiction, this Sherlock Holmes origin story is produced by the ineffable Steven Spielberg, written by Chris Columbus (who was responsible for The Goonies) and given real energy by director Barry Levinson. It lacks the sharpness and wit Spielberg might have granted it (it boasts trace elements of Indiana Jones,, but the spruce special effects bring its bizarre riffs on hallucinations to dazzling life (death by pastries!) and Nicholas Rowe and Alan Cox are a likable match for literature’s great detective partnership.
The London of the 1890s is everything Hollywood cliché has made it — streets suffocated by pea-soupers barely penetrated by gaslight. It’s an effective world to plant a mystery such as this, which may test logic’s outer reaches, but with its Egyptian motifs, murders and deranged drugs, possesses enough scares to enthral, especially with Rowe’s eloquent chunks of exposition slowly putting the jigsaw together. Rowe also gets to romance the pretty Sophie Ward which may seem very un-Sherlock, meanwhile Watson is a bit bumbling and podgy (more Hollywood sidekick than anything), but as much as they are stereotypes, this is not trying to be anything by shiny, superficial entertainment constructed to a very familiar template: Indiana Jones-lite.
Talking of which, with hindsight, and not that co-incidentally given Columbus wrote the script, this mix of magic and investigation now obviously harkens to the style of Harry Potter movies (Columbus directed the first two). Which makes it years ahead of its time. A boast doubled when you learn that it also boasts the first splicing of CG graphics with real-life action in a stain-glass knight springing to life.
The young cast, which resembles a collection of Gerald Scarfe illustrations, acquits itself reasonably well, but is too ordinary to be heroic. And, once action is introduced into the mix, Barry Levinson's direction falters.